It’s that time of year again. If you’re one of the roughly 45 million Americans enrolled in Medicare, get ready for some year-end shopping. Medicare open enrollment for Medicare Supplement and Advantage plans and Medicare prescription drug plans runs from October 15th until December 7th. Open enrollment presents a great opportunity for seniors to manage their health care costs for the coming year. On offer is the opportunity to switch from one Medicare Advantage, Medicare Supplement or Part D prescription drug plan to another, switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan (also known as Part C), or enroll in a Part D prescription drug plan. Any changes or new enrollment will become effective on January 1, 2018.
“It’s like Deja-vu, all over again”
Despite a well-orchestrated advertising blitz from the insurance industry, most seniors retain their plan for years without shopping for new options. As a result, Medicare beneficiaries may remain locked into plans that no longer meet their needs- this is especially true for prescription drug plans whose pricing and coverage may change dramatically from year to year. Click here to preview 2018 Medicare, Part D premiums.
Where to Begin?
Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug plans are required to provide participants with an Annual Notice of Change (ANOC) each year. These are mailed in late September and detail any material changes in coverage for the coming year. The notice contains information specific to your plan and serves as a good baseline for comparison shopping.
Next, compile a list of medical providers and medications and compare it to the ANOC. If coverage for a medication you take is not included, or a physician has dropped out of your Advantage plan network, the statement will reflect this. For those seniors that are shopping for a stand-alone drug plan- with or without a Medicare Supplement plan- make use of the Plan Finder tool on Medicare.gov. This tool compares plans based on the drugs you take and the local pharmacy of your choice, including online pharmacies.
Review the Basics
- Original Medicare is a fee-for-service model where the government pays your health care providers directly for your Part A (hospitalization) and/or Part B (medical) services. Most people receive Part A benefits without paying a premium and have their Part B premiums deducted directly from their Social Security check. While premiums are modest- $134.00 per month for most Part B recipients- Original Medicare includes deductibles and coinsurance costs that quickly add up. For this reason, many people enroll in a Medicare Supplement Insurance plan to defray these costs.
- Medicare Supplement Insurance (also referred to as Medigap insurance), is a supplemental plan of insurance designed to work in conjunction with Original Medicare by covering the cost of deductibles and co-payments that you would otherwise be responsible for paying. These policies are governed by federal and state law and insurers must provide a standardized list of benefits for each plan.There are currently ten plan options and consumers can shop for plans by comparing each plan’s price with its covered benefits. Medigap insurance policies work with any physician that accepts payment from Medicare, but do not provide prescription drug, vision or dental benefits. Most enrollees purchase a separate stand-alone prescription drug plan.
Medicare Advantage plans, which are sometimes called “Part C” plans, are offered by private insurance companies approved by Medicare. Participants are still enrolled in Medicare, but receive their coverage from the Advantage plan and not Original Medicare. These plans are structured as Health Maintenance (HMO), Medical Savings Accounts (MSA), local or regional Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) and Private Fee for Service (PFFS) plans, and must offer at least the same benefits as Original Medicare. Unlike Medigap plans, they are not standardized and will typically provide additional benefits such as prescription drugs, dental and vision care that are not covered under Original Medicare.
What is noteworthy for 2018?
- Medicare Part B base premiums will remain at $134 per month- and lower still for those subject to Medicare’s hold harmless As in years past, higher income individuals are subject to increased Medicare Part B and Part D premiums. The increase is designed to shift a higher portion of Medicare costs to those of greater means and is known as the Medicare Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA).
- 2018 is the first year that new Medicare income tiers become effective. These new income tiers, resulting from the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, significantly reduce the income thresholds used to qualify for the IRMAA and will expand the number of Medicare recipients that pay higher monthly plan premiums. Higher income singles are hit especially hard.
- Medicare Part D prescription drug plan premiums are expected to decline slightly to an average of $33.50 per month. Premiums for specific plans, however, will vary by region. Participants should carefully review their ANOC and use the Medicare Plan Finder Tool to select a plan that meets their needs.
In 2018, Medicare participants will see a steep discount in the cost of brand name and generic drugs during the coverage gap (also known as the doughnut hole). This discount ranges from 56% for generic drugs to 65% for brand-name drugs.
Understand Your Options
Enrollees in Original Medicare can purchase a Medicare Supplement (Medigap) plan, and/or stand-alone drug plan, and those with an Advantage Plan can switch plans. Those with Original Medicare may also switch to an Advantage plan. It’s important to note that Medicare Supplement (Medigap) and Medicare Advantage plans are not designed to work together and federal law does not provide you the right to purchase a Medigap insurance policy. In other words, you should not have both plans and your health may preclude you from purchasing a Medigap policy outside of your initial enrollment period. For those with Advantage plans that wish to switch to Original Medicare, you may do so during the Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period (MADP) that runs from January 1st to February 14th. Moving from an Advantage plan to Original Medicare can be tricky, so to avoid gaps in coverage you should contact 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). The representatives can help you confirm the rules in your state and the enrollment period that should be used. Finally, those that wish to enroll in a Medicare Advantage Medical Savings Account (MSA), are generally only able to do so during Fall open enrollment.
Checklist for Fall Open Enrollment
- Review your Annual Notice Of Change (ANOC) and note any material changes in prescription drug or medical coverage.
- If you plan to join a Medicare Advantage or stand-alone prescription drug plan, verify that you are eligible to participate in the plan. Confirm that you have Medicare Part A and Part B coverage and live within the geographic service area that the plan covers. Note that those with end-stage renal disease generally cannot join an Advantage plan.
- Decide if your current plan works for you. Those with Original Medicare might find the expanded services and potentially lower costs available in an Advantage plan to be very attractive. Balance these services, the network of providers offered, and out-of-pocket costs versus those associated with retaining Original Medicare and purchasing a Medigap and/or stand-alone drug plan.
- Confirm how Medicare integrates with retiree or veterans benefits. Speak with your organization’s benefits administrator to discuss how your insurance works with Medicare. Most plans require you to enroll in Medicare, but enrollment in Medicare Advantage or stand-alone drug plans may cause you to lose coverage under your retiree plan. Ask for any restrictions in writing.
- Know your timeline. For those switching between Medigap, Medicare Advantage or stand-alone drug plans this is more straightforward, but those switching from an Advantage plan to Original Medicare should confirm what, if any, changes to make during Fall open enrollment and what should wait until the Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period (MADP).
- Crunch the numbers. Plan premiums are only one consideration. Out of pocket costs such as co-payments and deductibles may add up quickly. Avail yourself to preventative-care visits and screening procedures that are offered at little or no cost.
- Remember that those newly eligible Medicare recipients are subject to an initial enrollment period that is based on your birth date, while those leaving employment may be subject to a Special Enrollment Period.
Medicare and your state’s Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) can be reached by calling 1-800 MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). Enrollment can be done by calling Medicare directly or enrolling online. Be sure to print your confirmation number and summary of choices.
The Medicare Rights Center maintains a free telephone line (1-800-333-4114) and can explain the differences between Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans, and help in selecting an appropriate plan type.
Medicare.gov provides a variety of resources such as the Medicare Plan Finder and tools that can help you compare Medicare Supplement and prescription drug plans. The process of shopping for a new plan doesn’t need to be a daunting task if you do a little research first.
John Male, CFP®, RICP®
The Gassman Financial Group
G&G Planning Concepts, Inc
9 East 40th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10016
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